Terence McKenna Archives – Random Item #39 – Tripping But Not Falling (New York Times Profile, 1993)

Today’s random item from the archives is a profile of Terence McKenna, called ‘Tripping, but Not Falling’, that appeared in The New York Times in its issue of May 2, 1993 and was written by Trip Gabriel who had spent some time talking with Terence near his home in Occidental, California. The full, long article can be read on the Times’ website, here. Some highlights are included below…

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Nibbling his “Cranberry Gobbler” sandwich in a sunny cafe, Terence McKenna explained his theory of how psychedelic mushrooms are the missing link in the story of human evolution…

“For sure the mushroom would have been sampled,” Mr. McKenna said. “Then our proto-hominid forebears, like legions of hippies millennia hence, discovered that the usual activities comprising the whirl of their days — hunting and gathering, primarily — were out of the question.

“You are just simply nailed to the ground and you experience the bewildering phenomenon that we call the hallucinogenic experience, which even post-Husserl, post-Merleau-Ponty, post-everything, we don’t know what to make of,” he said. “It laid the basis, I think for religion and for language.”

This was some earful to hear over lunch in the pleasant, slow-moving town of Occidental… A local bulletin board advertises “Environmentally Conscious Tree Care” and “Christie’s Not-So-Toxic Housekeeping Service.”

Magic mushrooms as the missing link is only one of many seemingly preposterous notions he promotes with beguiling logic, albeit with a definite lack of hard evidence.

After wandering for years in the cultural outback of the New Age — a movement he deplores for its guru worship and abandonment of rationalism — Mr. McKenna is beginning to be more widely heard… His charismatic lecture style…pulls in audiences…seemingly [that are] equal mixes of psychonauts, cyberpunks and slightly befuddled mycologists.

Mr. McKenna has a significant following in the youthful rave culture, where dancers pulsating to a dreamy techno beat often choose to chemically alter their consciousness. His latest book…was launched in February not with a book signing but with an all-night rave in San Francisco…

“This under-25 group is a little different from the wannabe yuppie generation of the 80’s,” Mr. McKenna said.

“They have the same kind of alienation that immediately preceded the hippie outbreak of the 60’s. It’s a feeling of being marginalized by the system. Apparently, if a generation can’t find inclusion in the culture, then it becomes narcissistic, with all the positive and negative connotations that brings.”

With piercing deep-set eyes and a scraggly beard, Mr. McKenna has a cheerfully demonic look. His countenance bears weary witness to the utter strangeness of what he claims to have discovered in 25 years of imbibing “heroic doses” of hallucinogens. Now 46, he first tried psychedelics in the mid-60’s in Berkeley, Calif. But unlike most of his generation, who buried their acid trips in a file marked Unidentified Youthful Indulgences, Mr. Mckenna doggedly followed through.

For more than two decades he has hitchhiked around the galaxy on the back of the magic mushroom.

Whatever else he is, Mr. McKenna is a sure sign that Reagan-Bushism is dead and in the ground, and that a wilder social moment may be upon us.

His speaking style is a perfect synthesis of message and medium, an aural reconstruction of psychedelic experience…

Free-associating his way through intellectual history, he caroms between reference to Finnegans Wake, Heraclitus, a scene with the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz and the writings of the neo-Platonist Philo Judaeus.

The cosmic giggle ripple through Mr. McKenna’s spiels as if to make palatable the sheer weirdness of what he has to say.

The crowd was mostly hirsute forty-somethings, like the characters in a Koren cartoon. They wore layers of loose natural-fiber clothing, like Mr. McKenna himself, who was dressed in a baggy chenille sweater.

…the most forceful advocate for psychedelics since Timothy Leary.

“He’s an eloquent and imaginative poet of the psychedelic experience,” said Mr. Leary, and unabashed admirer… “He combines ancient wisdom with Irish wit.”

…Mr McKenna’s claims for hallucinogens go way beyond Leary, Aldous Huxley or any of his predecessors.

In a nutshell, this is Mr. McKenna’s update of the psychedelic revolution: tune in, turn on, save the ozone layer. To many, he appeals simply because he is such a hoot. “Our dilemma,” Mr. McKenna said with pranksterish wit, “is that halfway on the way to becoming angels we stopped taking our medication.”

He was seated on the floor of his Occidental apartment, a tea tray at his feet… The big room was empty of furniture except for a reading chair. Thousands of books lined three walls from floor to ceiling. Mr. McKenna sat near the Greek philosophy and Hellenistic religion shelves. He had Plato, the gnostics, the cabala, Appolonias of Cayenna and a seven-volume “Legends of the Jews.”

“I don’t understand why drugs are not used as tools of research,” he said. “You want to know how the atom works? Smash it and look at the pieces. You want to know how the mind works? Get it smashed and then see what the pieces are.”

Mr. McKenna is a lovely psychedelic sophist. His reasoning has a seductive and seemingly learned coherence, even though it doesn’t quite hold up. One wonders if he’d advocate conducting other scientific inquiries — atom-smashing, say — while the observer is hallucinating. The polysyllabic sentences he lards with intellectual references are an attempt to lend credibility to the otherwise debunked subject of drugs.

On occasion Mr. McKenna seems to swerve perilously into what psychologists might call delusions of grandeur. “If I’m right, you know,” he said in an eerily serious voice, “you’re sitting across from Newton.”

“People say marijuana is the entry drug,” he said. “Science fiction is really the entry drug,” he said. “Science fiction is really the entry drug. Because the subtext of science fiction is release your imagination, anything can happen.”

What saves Mr. McKenna’s fantastic yarn from being instantly dismissible is that he himself recognizes the absurdity of what he’s saying and, yet, feels compelled to say it anyway.

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